It’s not often that North Korean-flagged freighters turn up near America’s shores, but when they do, they deserve attention. North Korea has a prolific record of arms smuggling, narcotics dealing, counterfeiting, terrorist ties and missile and nuclear proliferation. So, let’s hope U.S. authorities are keeping a close eye on a North Korean cargo ship called the Mu Du Bong, which late last month called at Cuba, then vanished from the commercial shipping grid for more than a week. This past Thursday, July 10, the Mu Du Bong reappeared at Havana, then began steaming north of Cuba, and as of this writing is cruising the Gulf of Mexico, not all that far from the Mexican port of Tampico — or for that matter, the coast of Texas.
The Mu Du Bong’s mission could be entirely legitimate. But its behavior bears some disturbing similarities to last year’s voyage of another North Korean freighter, the Chong Chon Gang, which last summer sailed into the Caribbean, picked up an illicit load of weapons in Cuba, and got caught trying to smuggle its cargo through the Panama Canal.
Acting on a tip, Panamanian authorities searched the Chong Chon Gang. They discovered some 240 tons of arms and related materiel, including two disassembled MiG-21 jet fighters, additional MiG engines, surface-to-air missile system components, night vision goggles and ammunition — all hidden under more than 200,000 bags of Cuban sugar.
Documents found on board the Chong Chon Gang proved a trove of information for members of the United Nations Panel of Experts on North Korea sanctions, who summarized some of their findings in a UN report released this past March. The U.N. investigators were able to reconstruct an array of techniques with which the Chong Chon Gang tried to hide its illicit mission. They concluded that both the arms shipment and the related transaction between North Korea and Cuba had violated U.N. sanctions on North Korea.
The U.N. report describes how the Chong Chon Gang set out in mid-2013 from North Korea, took on fuel in a Russian Far East port, crossed the Pacific and transited the Panama Canal into the Caribbean. The ship then disappeared from the commercial shipping grid by switching off its onboard transponder, the Automatic Identification System (AIS), with which vessels for reasons of maritime safety are required to signal their identity and real-time location.
While its transponder was switched off, the Chong Chon Gang discharged cargo in Havana, then drifted around north of Cuba for about 10 days, then made a covert stop at the Cuban port of Mariel — where the weapons were loaded on board. The ship then called at another Cuban port, Puerto Padre, where the sugar, a legitimate cargo, was loaded on top on the contraband.
Now comes the Mu Du Bong, a North Korean-flagged general cargo ship, launched in 1984. This vessel is named after a hill in North Korea near Mount Paektu, a locale central to the mythology with which North Korea’s totalitarian regime has deified its founding tyrant, Kim Il Sung.
According to ship-tracking information on Lloyd’s, the Mu Du Bong has spent the past three years plying the coast of China, close to North Korea. In April, that changed. The Mu Du Bong called at the Russian Far East port of Nakhodka, then crossed the Pacific, transited the Panama Canal in mid-June, and made for Cuba. On June 25, she signaled on AIS a few miles off the port of Mariel; then signaled again on June 29 and 30 from the nearby port of Havana.
Then, for nine straight days, from July 1-9, the Mu Du Bong stopped signaling on AIS, and disappeared from the commercial shipping grid. It’s possible the ship was simply sitting quietly at anchor. But there are echoes here not only of the Chong Chon Gang, but of a number of other North Korean-flagged freighters which over the years have followed this pattern of dropping off the grid in the vicinity of Cuba. In congressional testimony last September, illicit-trafficking expert Hugh Griffiths, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, described this practice as “a common risk indicator of maritime trafficking.” (Iran in recent years has used the same tactic to mask sanctions-busting activities of its oil tankers).
According to ship-tracking data logged by Lloyd’s, the Mu Du Bong recently reappeared on commercial radar, on July 10, again signaling from Havana. Since then, the ship has signaled as sailing north and west, into the heavy shipping traffic in the Gulf of Mexico.
Who is behind the North Korean-flagged Mu Du Bong? On what errand did this ship just call at Cuba, and on what business is it now in the Gulf of Mexico? Publicly available information is either a muddle (in the case of its ownership), or nonexistent (regarding its cargo). Two respected shipping databases, Lloyd’s List Intelligence and Equasis, give different accounts of the Mu Du Bong’s precise pedigree. Both point to the government of North Korea.
According to Lloyd’s, the Mu Du Bong’s beneficial owner is the government of North Korea, but its registered owner is a company in Thailand, called Mariners Shipping and Trading Company Limited. When I phoned this company’s Bangkok number, the phone was answered by someone who gave his name only as Mr. Chanvit, which is the name listed by Lloyd’s as the company’s manager. Chanvit, who spoke good English, said that Mariners Shipping and Trading normally acts not as a ship owner, but as an agent. Asked about the Mu Du Bong and any connections with Cuba and North Korea, Chanvit declined to answer any more questions over the phone. He asked that such queries be submitted by email, which I did. There has been no response.
There does appear to be a company in Thailand at the same address, with an almost identical name — Mariner’s Shipping and Trading Company (the difference from the name given on Lloyd’s being the addition of an apostrophe) — in which North Korea’s state news agency over the past 11 years has taken a cordial interest. Is it coincidence?
In 2003 and 2004, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that Mariner’s Shipping and Trading in Thailand had hosted cultural events commemorating the works of Kim Il Sung. More recently, in 2012, KCNA reported that an unnamed “director” of Mariner’s Shipping and Trading, while attending a celebration of North Korea’s Kim dynasty rule, had rhapsodized about North Korea’s state doctrine known as songun – which gives first priority to the North Korean military in the allocation of resources. In the words of a Sept. 4, 2012 item from KCNA: “The director of the Mariner’s Shipping and Trading Company of Thailand stressed that Songun is the best way of defending the sovereignty of the country and the nation at present when the imperialists are becoming all the more undisguised in their high-handed and arbitrary practices.”
Lloyd’s also lists as a contact for the Mu Du Bong a company called Korea Tonghae Shipping Company, based in Pyongyang. According to a 2012 UN report, Korea Tonghae Shipping was designated by Japan as a major North Korean ship-owning company “associated with the illegal exports of WMD-related goods and equipment and etc. from Japan to the DPRK.”
On the Equasis shipping database, the Mu Du Bong is listed as owned by the Mudubong Shipping Co Ltd, in Pyongyang, with an address care of Taedonggang Sonbak Co Ltd, also in Pyongyang. According to the 2014 UN panel of experts report on North Korea sanctions, the commercial operator for Taedonggang Sonbak is another Pyongyang-based company, called Ocean Maritime Management Company Ltd — which was the commercial operator for the arms-smuggling Chong Chon Gang, and “played a key role in arranging the shipment of the concealed cargo of arms and related materiel.”
The questions multiply. Who is providing insurance for the Mu Du Bong? (Lloyd’s, usually a source for such information, shows nothing). With a number of North Korean banks under U.S. sanctions, who paid the fees for the Mu Du Bong’s passage last month through the Panama Canal?
What might the U.S. do? To date, the U.S. government has not imposed sanctions on North Korean vessels. If the Mu Du Bong heads home by way of the Panama Canal, presumably Panama’s authorities could be asked, politely, to check the cargo. But there is no guarantee this ship will head back through the canal. This is not the Mu Du Bong’s first trip to Cuba. She called there previously, in 2009. On that trip, the Mu Du Bong entered the Caribbean via the Panama Canal, but exited by a different route. After calling at Cuba she plied the Atlantic for months between Latin America and West Africa, with port calls in Brazil, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Senegal, before heading around the Horn of Africa and back to East Asia with stops enroute in Qatar, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Singapore.
Perhaps it’s unlikely that North Korea would so brazenly attempt another smuggling run so close to America’s shores, so soon after the seizure of the Chong Chon Gang. But in dispatching the Mu Du Bong via the Panama Canal to Cuba, Pyongyang is at the very least sticking a thumb in America’s eye, and quite possibly testing the waters for future smuggling runs.
This article was originally published at Forbes.com.